27 September 2010

These things I believe to be true

Last week I was asked "what is your philosophy when it comes to consulting?"

I gave some sort of glib answer.
But the question stuck in my brain. And I realized it's actually an important one.

So I'm going to try and dignify it with a more cogent answer - or at least the start of an answer. And I'm going to do so by listing the things I believe to be true (and important) in ethical, effective and valuable consulting.

  1. As consultants, our value lies in our knowledge and our insights. Deliverables are just a way to capture that knowledge and those insights. This points the way to proper use of time and effort; proper focus for clients; and proper hiring.
  2. Our clients are not dumb and they don't hire us because we're smart. The understanding of what the problems / opportunities are as well as what the optimal solutions and directions are exist within the organizations that hire us. It's just that there is rarely a person who has the perspective and the access to see and synthesize the data - much less create an unbiased thesis from it. This points the way to proper task prioritization; and to proper client relationship management.
  3. It's better to be fired for telling the truth than rewarded for lying. To me this is the difference between unethical consultants (representing a majority of those in the market) and good, ethical ones. There is no grey area here (lies are lies), though there is a right way to take a client through these sometimes painful journeys.
  4. For consultants (as opposed to contractors), breadth is of paramount importance. Without being able to see the big picture - or if you have blind spots - you will miss critical leverage points and angles and weaknesses and threats. Without that breadth, as a result, your synthesis will be faulty and incomplete and as a result the direction and recommendations you arrive at will be flawed. This points the way to proper skills development; proper consultant hiring; and a need for honesty by consultants on their strengths and weaknesses.
  5. As relates to this, more data equals better results. Be afraid of consultants who don't demand more data. Good ones will say that there is never enough data. This points the way to accurate preparation for clients; and proper hiring practices.
  6. In the end, the goal is to work less and charge more. Consultants who work in a job shop manner (where it's all about maximizing utilization) are unable to get the chance to step back, gain perspective, and allow synthesis to happen. This results in poor results (see above) and decreased value (and thus lower rates). A target for max utilization for strategy consultants should be something around 60%. Anything more and you're destroying that golden egg laying goose. This points the way to many (many) things that are currently wrong with the consulting business not the least of which are the pyramid scheme structure of most consulting organizations, a redefinition of success where early (below budget) completion of projects is the big win and the realization that hiring cheap business consultants is a lot like going with the cheap heart surgeon.

I'm sure I've missed a few.
And I'm confident that some of these are confusingly described.

But... I think this is a good line in the sand. I think it's a good start at defining what my Philosophy of Consulting is.

14 September 2010

words have power

One of the primary joys of working with designers is the opportunity to see problem sets from an entirely different angle - to completely change the frame. For me this enables a reshuffling of attributes, components and forces that regularly shakes things loose and allows for a sudden refocusing and more complete grasp and understanding.

For this to work - however - I have to be open-minded when coming into this collaboration. If I have a fixed field of view and a fixed perspective on the problem set (or worse yet if I've reached an conclusion beyond a simple hypothesis) then the entire process becomes pointless.

This is thus on me.

But one of the primary frustrations of working with (many) designers is a lack of curiosity for topics / concepts / ideas / processes / values that exist outside of the world of design. Without a basic level of curiosity in this manner, any and all discussions become entirely tactical. Rather than "how do we frame the problem" the discussion jumps immediately to "how do we solve the problem." For me, this inevitably results in frustration as the solutions are usually partial, wrong or inelegant.

This is thus on designers.

My current example of this problem is around semantics and semiotics within the world of design agencies. The perfect illustration is the dissonance around the meaning of words including "strategy" and "tactical" and "research" and "marketing."

The issue is not that there is a commonly agreed upon meaning for each of these. The issue is not that creating your own meaning is inherently wrong (or right). The issue is that any form of dialogue that creates value requires an understanding of the meanings for these concepts in the minds of those involved in the dialogue and both a negotiation of a shared meaning and a narrative around that meaning. If instead there is simply a requirement that your own meaning be understood to be "right" and a lack of curiosity about what others' meanings might be, then you might as well be speaking two mutually unspoken languages.

Working with people from a different perspective (designers in this case) who have this curiosity and this open-mindedness - who understand the need for dialogue, negotiation, narrative and development of shared meaning - results in revolutionary outcomes.

The alternative just makes me want to execute people.